A misguided belief prominent at the time was that the people we know as the Roma(ni) today were actually the descendents of Egyptian slaves – many said of those who had rescued Jesus. This led some to believe that studying features in their language would bring them to a better understanding of Coptic – which it would not since the Roma spoke an Indo-European language similar to Sanskrit. Nevertheless, the misconception is preserved etymologically: the word ‘gypsy’ is actually originally a corruption of the word, ‘Egyptian’.

Their persecution in England began  with the Egyptian Act of 1530 which had the objective of the total removal of the Romani population in England. Inward migration was banned and gypsies already present in England were given a ‘voluntary’ order to leave the country within sixteen days. Of course, many did not do so and became subject to the confiscation of property, imprisonment and deportation as a result. Under Mary there was actually a relative degree of tolerance (not that that tolerance was generally seen as a positive thing!) and in 1554 the position was modified so that gypsies who abandoned their traditionally nomadic lifestyle ceased to be subject to the above punishments. However, those who did not comply became subject to the additional punishment of execution. Such executions continued right up until the Restoration period which suggests that the Puritans, by and large, supported their continuation.

The Grindleton boy also moved away as I approached: he looked visibly repulsed by the sight of a swollen, dead body, the redness in his cheeks that had built up as he had run in the rain, now drained into nothing more than a sickly wanness that almost merged completely into the background rain. Man, no matter how youthful, is always most shocked by the prospect of his own mortality, that sack of sin our carcass becomes – whether discarded sin or otherwise – when the force of life has abandoned it. Momentarily we see not what we might become but what we might already be when all compensating thoughts are removed. Perhaps this is our real anchor of Truth against which all other events in this life must be judged and contextualised? He was a young one, mind! But then, in truth, perhaps youth is actually more fearful of it, mistakenly considering itself to be more distanced from Death? Brierley looked up at me. He showed no signs that he was thinking along those lines.

–               Should we pray? [I asked. Well, it had still seemed the most sensible thing to say to a curate at the time!]

He spoke without turning to address me as such.

–               I believe that there may not be much point in that. [Without registering it, I took it from that comment that the child was already deceased and beyond any intervention. What he said subsequently, whilst being unexpected, did not change the former conclusion fundamentally.] …Prayer is chiefly for beginners, Matthew. We have to do better than that.

I too was quite gripped by the water swollen corpse of the deceased child. As I said, that is when we view our own time-delimited mortality face-to-face and I was no exception to that general rule. However, it is also the time in which folk such as I sometimes speak of serious matters without giving them the requisite amount of forethought. Sometimes that is actually beneficial for revealing deeper thoughts and bringing them to the surface from the Mind. In his own manner, Brierley had actually just done so too.

–               Prayer is only vanity. [I responded.]

Brierley started and looked around, clearly most interested in what I had just said. But he kept his concentration (albeit by utilising all his iron determination) and returned to matters at hand. He may have stored those words in his head but I, for my part, forgot them again in an instant, only to have them return many times again in my life. They would eventually become my constant companions, guides by which I governed myself and, in the shorter term, Brierley was not going to permit me to forget them. His ‘matters at hand’ were not to be belittled. For immediately he commenced dragging the water-weighted body further up the bank away from the soaked ground nearer the Ribble. The numbers looking on were beginning to multiply now. They milled along the length of the bank but at a safe distance, well out of Brierley’s immediate vicinity.

–               What are you doing? [I asked, concerned as well as simply interested – and, I have to say, also rather revolted by the scene.]

I leaned right over him, in too close proximity to Death for a good many but Brierley said not a word at that precise moment. His gaze was as solid as Wealden iron[1]; he made an absolute point of not turning to look at me. Instead he astounded me by grasping one of the child’s hands and slamming it down next to mine with an unexpected degree of force. Given that uncharacteristic behaviour, initially, I did not know what he would have me do. Therefore he was forced then to turn to me but there was a petulance in his expression. Without a doubt he didn’t really have the time for any of this! ‘Feel!’ he commanded. That was abrupt and I had little option. So I felt the hand. Yes, it was cold and damp (more than damp, obviously – saturated in fact) and, at first, I considered that that might be what he had wanted me to register but how would it have been anything other than cold and wet having been dredged from the Ribble and, as he continued to fix me and his stare became more knowing, I did feel something else: a faint movement of blood passing through the hand. We did not know much about the circulation of blood in those days (although Brierley himself took great interest in such matters through his physick friends in Halifax and elsewhere but what physick folk might have been learning from their experiments did not filter through beyond the likes of him – we never heard anything of them). But anyone can feel whether life has gone or not if they know where to place their hand and that goes for people as well as sheep or cattlestock[2]. Brierley looked around him as though he were looking for something in the mist of rain that still surrounded us. I followed the direction of his gaze from one part of the foreground landscape to another but, in the end, I could make nothing of what he was doing. Then he turned the body into some contorted position and started to beat the child, slamming his fist hard down repeatedly into the boy’s chest. I looked around. Autumn and the Riddow wife were still adjacent to the crossing point and had been joined by many others including what appeared to be – at least from that distance in the drizzled murk – none other than Anne Brierley. They were about as near as anyone would have wished to be. None amongst them seemed to make any attempt to come any closer. However, there also seemed to be a small cluster of people now on the other side of the Ribble – that is to say, on the Lancashire side – who must have approached from Chatburn even though there was no settlement in the immediate vicinity of the opposite bank. What would they make of all this? To be honest, I did not know what to make of it myself. And I may have been blocking Autumn’s and Goodwife Riddow’s views for I was still fairly close to it when, from nowhere, the swollen body of the Egyptian suddenly started to spew up what must have been a gallon of river water – or probably more.

–               …That’s a good sign. [Announced Brierley in response.] He is coming back already. He should be fine now.

It had not hit me up until that point that Brierley was really expecting this boy to survive – this ‘sack’ as it had only recently been described to me. When he had suggested that it might well be pointless to pray I had considered in the recesses of my mind that he had seen such an intervention as suggestive of the Popish habit of praying for the souls of the dead[3]. He muttered something about how important it was that nobody should die without hearing one of his sermons. I laughed self-consciously but then realised that he might even have been serious as he exhibited no inclination to laugh back. I do not think he even noticed my amusement. How could that be anything other than pure vanity? But he was right on the first point at any rate: from that moment on the boy’s chest started to move at erratic intervals and then his eyes – wild eyes they were, at least now – flickered open.

The boy saw Brierley and began to choke merely from the shock of the situation in which he discovered himself.  I noticed Autumn’s sudden attention at that first sign of movement. But the Egyptian boy was less than comfortable to find himself directly beneath the village curate. There would have been absolutely no comfort for him in that. I looked around me again: the rain was petering out once more but it would doubtless be back (for it was in for the day; intermittently heavy then lighter, but never coming to a complete cessation). And someone must have told half the village what had happened for the crossing area now seemed to be full of people. As for me, my shaking feet beneath my soaked body seemed to have buried themselves in a sludge that went back down to the Ribble but also back into the very bowels of the Earth. Perhaps that was where I needed to be at the time.

The boy took a deep breath – sharp, panicked and sudden. The hand which had been so limp upon the muddy bank only moments before formed itself a loose fist, clumsily composed, and lashed out at Brierley’s poor face. It was a feeble, upwards effort – truly the craftsmanship of a much weakened boy – but still more than anyone, least of all Brierley, could have expected. It was just enough to catch him on the side of the jaw and to drive his overbite into his lower lip, one front tooth just marking it, the other actually drawing some blood. Then the Egyptian more forcefully pushed Brierley out of his way, levering the weight of the stunned curate from one side, scrambled to his feet and was suddenly in front of me screaming something at me but in his own language so I had very little idea what he might actually have been saying.

I was so shocked that I simply jumped out of the way. But the expressions of those by the area of the crossing itself were more than shocked; they were astounded, bordering on disbelieving of their own vision. They moved forward slightly without any apparent volition, setting themselves a little apart from the crossing itself. But even from that distance that much was obvious. Brierley was used to a fair bit of abuse but he was certainly not accustomed to being pushed around in the manner in which he was about to be. I looked over to the little – but doubtlessly swelling – crowd that had gathered on the opposite bank – the bank that should really have been mine; which should really have been curate Brierley’s too[4]! One of their number even crossed himself – damned Lancastrian Papist! – and I looked away quickly not actually knowing where my gaze should fall then for it was avoiding dwelling on so many separate things.

–               Are you hurt? [I asked as I helped the startled curate to his feet.]

–               No… I am fine (…I think). [He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. A little blood from his bottom lip came away with it but, more than anything, he succeeded in smearing his chin with the mud of the Ribble’s bank itself.] Thank you, Matthew, and thank you for your help with the boy. I am no worse for having been struck by the Egyptian. [He smiled broadly and laughed.] …‘We, the children of Israel …[5]

Perhaps Brierley seemed more bemused than anything. Certainly he was in no manner seriously injured but, personally, I did not always understand his sense of humour at moments such as that. He was plastered in mud: his clothes; his body – I had never seen the like in fact, not even on one of the local farms after the delivery of a difficult calf. And yet, somehow, he found something humorous within the situation for he started to laugh again and it was evidently, in some way, at himself as he began to attempt to shift some of the more obvious layers of mud away but actually succeeded only in rubbing them further into his clothing for he was so caked. They found their wandering ways into the gaps between the textiles; hidden places.

However, as we walked back towards the crossing there was an initial total silence there amongst the swelled crowd of onlookers. Many amongst them were quieter than I had ever heard them in fact. But old Mrs Riddow was shaking her head. Frankly, Brierley seemed to be beyond caring, rather worn down by the experiences of the previous few minutes. Instead, he turned to me and asked me a quiet question – something that had obviously remained upon his mind:

–               You know how I like to put all preconceptions to one side in order to view things objectively? …Interesting thing you said back there, Matthew: prayer being all vanity, I mean. From whence did you get such an opinion? Sometimes I have even thought such things myself that the days of prayer are past but we would have no hope for the flock without it – surely? You cannot be the first to have said such things though…[6]

I was amazed that he had kept such a seeming triviality on his mind under such circumstances. I had certainly not given any answer much consideration. And my comment had been purely intuitive, not based upon any academic study. I supposed such things had to be given due attention by a man in his position. Theoretically, I had been spouting heresy. But, what I said, I came up with thinking only upon my feat, still shaking violently as they were from the tension!

–               You have been encouraging me to think for myself. [He nodded either approvingly or simply in tacit recognition of the fact.] It seemed to me that God would not want disturbing with trivial matters from Grindleton. He is the creator of every star in the firmament, every river and every fell, every beast which treads the garths or haunts the nighttime woods. [Involuntarily I replicated the hand movements to which I had been exposed by Goodwife Riddow only minutes since! – although the arcs I created with them across the Ribble landscape were broader and they were actually more attentively watched.] We can scan[7] from one horizon to the other, travel for the length of every day with no rest for the night, each day of our paltry lives and yet never see the limits of his creature. It isn’t obvious to me that what is happening amongst Grindleton folk will be central to his Mind’s concerns[8].

Brierley seemed to be giving that some thought even though the timing seemed to me to be the most inappropriate imaginable. His gaze had fallen upon the gathered multitude too – I detected, rather disconcertedly. He stared at them but gave them no further acknowledgement beyond that. Indeed, in effect, he gave them no acknowledgement at all.

–               True enough, Matthew. I am not saying that I agree with you wholesale but I want people in my congregation to do some of their own thinking and not imagine that only curates and ministers – types in black – have a relationship with God. We all do …we are all ministers, in fact. And there are times when I need to consider a proposition and have to put my own views to one side so that I consider things as though reading from an otherwise blank page in front of me.

That was the second time he had driven home that point about putting his own beliefs to one side in order to assess those of another! But I noted how he made no attempt to dispute what I had said about prayer – the ‘wholesale’ addition making it wholly ambiguous. In effect, he neither agreed nor disagreed with me – at least to my face. He simply allowed me to hold my own view. It might have been easy to interpolate from his speech that he did not agree with me but he had not actually said that. Meanwhile, we had arrived within the little throng and, at my other side, Goodwife Riddow had turned to another elderly lady, whose name I did not know and was whispering furtively but somehow just not quietly enough! I detested such behaviour from the outset.

–               …I told you that there was something strange about him. Saying odd things in his own chapel on the Sabbath morn is one thing – well, they all say odd things; admittedly not all as strange as some of the stuff that this one has already come out with of late… enough even to upset a bunch of magpies…[9]

I turned my gaze to stare at the two of them. Very probably they deserved nothing better. The unknown elderly lady (actually, how come I did not know her?) looked perturbed but her glassy blue eyes, the kind old hounds possess, almost akin to that of my grandmother, did not shift[10].

–               Did you not say that he thinks those baptised are really dead? Are you quite sure that the little ‘gyptian tyke was really dead?

Riddow nodded in the most positive of manners. She didn’t even bother responding to the first question. ‘Baptised to Death’ with water was one matter, a heady theological twisting and twining of words which might actually have meant very little to her – next to nothing; raising waterlogged lykes from it was another – completely!

–               Oh yes, quite sure. You should have seen him when he came out of t’ Ribble – still as a gutted fish but bloated as Jonah’s would have been when it died[11]. That’s how all the dead are when they come out of the water. Believe me; I have seen the like a few times in my life! No, what that curate has done today is not normal. He’ll say that the child was not really dead, of course…but I am telling you: think on!

I hated to hear them speak of him so: ‘not normal!’ No, of course, he was far from ‘normal’ but it was far from being the result of such reasoning – or lack of it! I turned to Brierley, who must have been just out of earshot from them or else such trivial conversations (even regarding his own person) held absolutely no interest for him for he made no attempt at any kind of response. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere but in reality out of some recess of the abyss in my mind, I felt an urgent need to pose an important question to him. Therefore I pushed back through the little mass of folk towards him for I had become just a little separated from the man. He was attempting to free himself from other conversations anyway. I could tell that from his movements from behind: the subtle shifts of his shoes in the soil, agitated little hand movements reflected in his elbows. He felt my hand touch the rear of his shoulder and turned in response. Instinctively, I knew he had no doubts it was my palm. I sensed that but, to be fair, it probably had a somewhat different feel to it after having been in contact with the wrist of an already nigh-on corpse.

–               Brierley, I need to ask you something. [My voice had been loud; he had had no problem hearing me. His dark, dishevelled hair was clinging to his wet face – a mixture of nervous sweat and endless rain. He wiped the water from his face with his filthy hand which would have benefited enormously from being dipped in the Ribble, leaving every pore on his face clogged with dirt, every single droplet of sweat upon the surface of his skin a river brown, and made some kind of noise, acknowledging that he had heard me and was listening. It all suggested a touch of the exhaustion setting in upon him to me. I moved closer still towards him on account of the nature and personal sensitivity of the question. In amongst the dirt and filth across the surface of his face, his lip was more swollen than actually bloodied; puffed up.] …What were you looking for before you drained the water from the Egyptian’s body?

I sensed that, had he retained any trace of joviality, it would have drained completely away then. But perhaps there was actually none present in the first place? Evidently, it was a matter of some seriousness to him.

–               I was looking for his share of the Spirit, Matthew – the Wind that is; that smallest of sparks of Godhead in all of us[12]. They say it leaves the body when someone dies and floats around them until the last gasp of life leaves them. [Who were ‘they’?] If I had spotted something then I would have let the Egyptian leave us for, in effect, the Wind would have departed him already. That would have been his appointed time in the eyes of the Lord. As it was, his Destiny was still open to our actions. Not very ‘Calvinist’ to most people’s interpretations of the man, I know, before you even trouble yourself to tell me that Matthew! …But it is to be both my interpretation and my way, believe me[13]!

I made the briefest of comments regarding how my grandmother had once told me that in the strongest of winds you could see the living spirits of trees blowing from within them. He was not completely dismissive but he was well aware that that was something else. I had seen that myself up upon the moors and it was nothing of the sort for their seed fell forth and cast a shadow upon the breezes. So I dropped that line of conversation at that point. I even regretted having attempted any sort of contribution to the exchange.


 

[1] The Weald was the most important iron-making area of England. Over eight hundred iron making sites have been identified by the Wealden Iron Research Group.

[2] William Harvey published his book on the circulatory system in 1628 at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Harvey had gone to Padua in 1600. He received his doctorate after two years and was back in London by 1603. He climbed the capital’s medical hierarchy rapidly and in 1609 he became a Fellow of the College of Physics. See B. Woolley – ‘The herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper and the fight for medical freedom’ (2005) for greater detail or T. Wright – ‘Circulation: William Harvey’s revolutionary idea’ (2012).

[3] Praying for the souls of the dead was something abhorrent to Protestants, particularly as the Catholic habit had often involved money in payment.

[4] i.e. the Lancashire side – the County in which both Brierley and Matthew were both born and raised.

[5] Brierley’s humorous comment is not explained fully but must be connected with the allegorical contrast between Israel and Egypt – the latter being the assumed source of the gypsy boy’s roots.

[6] Possibly it might be worth noting a comment in Brierley’s Sermon XIV in Bundle here:

“Praying days are gone. We have wept but now rejoice.”

[7] Scan: actually from the Latin scandere, implying ‘to scan verse’ or ‘to climb’.

[8] Compare this to a logic usually presented as evidence of borderline atheism (which didn’t mean quite the same thing in those days): William Gardiner – a prominent Surrey J.P. – claimed in 1582 that “God hath nothing to do with the world since he created it”. For further details see Keith Thomas’ classic text.

[9] Magpies: implies ministers, particularly those of a conformist nature on account of the anti-vestarian stance of many Non-Conformist Puritans. Presumably, she is alluding to Brierley’s excommunication as well. However, the ‘magpie’ slander might not have had quite such purely ‘Anglican wing’ overtones to those who did not understand it in its full context. Therefore it is possible that it might equally be being applied to moderate Puritans such as Jobson.

[10] It is not obvious here whether Matthew is indicating that she might be blind or not.

[11] At the time most ordinary people would have considered a whale to be a fish rather than a mammal or an ‘animal’.

[12] The Wind: note here the similarity with the Ancient Greek concept of pneuma, (‘air in motion’, ‘soul’). It was used in both the Greek New Testament for ‘Spirit’ and in Greek translations of the Hebrew Old Testament. So, for example, it is used in John 3: 5: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit (pneuma), he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ Note that the Biblical usage is somewhat of a simplification of the complexities of Greek understandings of the Soul and the Spirit. The word also had medical implications in the original Greek.

[13] My way, believe me!: In spite of the fact that Brierley claims that his thinking on this fact is ‘not very Calvinist’, there are some very obvious Calvinistic overtones to it.